There’s no doubt about it, as a nation we are living longer; average life expectancy in the UK is currently 79 for men and 83 for women. And because we are living longer, we are all likely to work for many more years than our parents’ generation in order to maintain a decent standard of living for our eventual retirement. In fact, by 2020 the over 50s will make up more than a third of the workforce in the UK, making this category a major influence on UK workplaces and the economy.
We need to understand what this means contextually in the year 2017. If we go back even one generation, age was synonymous with length of service which in turn meant seniority: over 50s were generally to be found peacefully working away in a corner office or attending another board meeting. Whilst this stereotype may still exist, it’s no longer always the case: now a 22 year old can be CEO of a highly successful business, 16 year olds are starting their own online companies from their bedrooms, teenagers become internet sensations with more wealth than most people can even fathom. Structural hierarchy is no longer directly proportionate to age.
This social revolution opens up new opportunities not just for the young but for older workers too. By extending our working lives we create the possibility of having a number of different careers. Gone are the days when graduates saw out their working lives with one company before retiring with a generous pension. Nowadays you might choose to leave a steady job to start your own company or to re-train as something completely different – perhaps in an industry that wasn’t even around 15 years ago. So if we can accept a 22 year old CEO, then we can accommodate a 62 year old intern, can’t we?
Well it seems that here the old stereotypes creep in again, and the common (mis)conception is that those learning a business are young (and fairly clueless) people. Hollywood sees the humour in flipping this on its head, creating recent hit films such as The Internship, featuring two recently redundant middle aged salesmen competing with the next generation for an internship at Google, and more recently The Intern, which sees Robert De Niro come out of retirement to find purpose in an internship at an online shopping company. Whether it’s struggling with up to the minute technology or being bamboozled with the coffee orders, the notion of an older intern, out of touch with the reality of modern life is, well, comical. Why? Because most of us can relate to it on a fairly personal level, that feeling of being a bit out of the loop on new technology, not quite getting the hang of the latest app. It’s a reversal of the parent-child relationship where the younger worker now has the knowledge and savvy to educate the older generation. Technology is advancing at such a rapid rate that it’s no longer about being IT literate and, without paying attention to keeping up with change, it’s easy to be left behind.
There is a deeper level to this as well. Young people, even those in senior roles, are excused from many failings for being a bit wet around the ears, still learning the ropes etc. whereas older workers are often not extended the same courtesy. Older people are often expected to be all knowing, confident and in control of the situation. When they don’t fulfil this, it can be surprising and, yes, also funny. But what even Hollywood accepts (and this is the thinly veiled message in the above movies) is that mature workers still have something very valuable to bring to the party: experience. Yes, young people can have some wide and varying experience but the longevity and depth of their experience is incomparable to that of older people; they simply have not had the time to experience as many things. Whilst experience is not the be all and end all, younger people perhaps have not learned the most valuable lesson of all: how to fail. This might not be the goal of many graduates starting out, but ask any entrepreneur who has been around the block a few times and they will all agree that their most valuable lessons came from learning what went wrong. Of course you can read up on other people’s failings, there are whole books on the matter and the very open nature of our communications on social media mean that there are countless blogs and articles on the topic of learning from failure. But there is something much more powerful in accepting personal failure and learning a lesson that is uniquely applicable to your own situation. It is said that this is where personal growth comes from, where you find inner strength to evolve and become the best you can be.
The old adage that ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’, does not apply to people. Anyone can learn … so long as they are open to being taught. This doesn’t stop with older interns; there are a whole raft of people waiting in the wings to return to work or join a new industry: parents who have taken time out to look after their children, people who have suffered serious illness or injury, those who are just desperate to do something different and looking for a way in. As an employer, it’s vital to maintain an open mind regarding age, whether it’s planning training and development, career development opportunities, project resources, even social events. Don’t write people off or make assumptions purely due to someone’s age. Create opportunities to learn, to diversify and make those opportunities available to everyone. Don’t assume that people want to do the same thing forever or that they are not capable of achieving great things because of their age. Look for transferable skills, mix people up to integrate skill sets and ages. Share knowledge and experience. And next time you’re looking for an intern, think about where you place that ad, where you will find that person and what you need from them. Do you really need a 20 something? Could a 40, 50 or 60 something bring a different dynamic to the party? You might not get Robert De Niro but it could be just as surprising.
Improving diversity not only drives profitability, it also makes for a much more interesting place to work, by embracing the richness and variety that people bring to the mix. If you need some help with your diversity strategy, or are just getting started, we’re the right people to speak to. We are www.greatwithdiversity.com and we can help you to assess how diversity and inclusion influences employee opinions and perceptions through every step of the employment journey with your organisation, and across multiple minority groups. We achieve this through a unique range of questionnaires that focus on the perceived importance and impact of bias in the workplace – resulting in solution focussed, actionable reports which highlight key steps you can take to improve diversity and inclusion practices in your organisation and effect real and positive change. For further information visit our website or contact us directly.